Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)

Bright future posterThe cinema of the late ‘90s and early 2000s is one defined by alienated youth kicking back against a stagnant society in which they see no place for themselves now that the dull and conventional salaryman world of their parents can no longer offer security in place of fulfilment. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early masterpieces had edged towards the nihilistic, embracing this sense of generational hopelessness but finding perhaps glimmers of possibility in the longing for escape no matter how far off. Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Akarui Mirai), shifting away from the genre fare which had made his name, does something much the same but perhaps even bleaker in its melancholy acceptance of intergenerational disconnection.

Our two heroes, Yuji (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), have workaday jobs at a factory which they find fulfilling only in their emptiness. The guys have found a fan in the factory’s ageing boss, Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano), who begins giving them special jobs and trying to hang out with them while promising a special signing bonus should they agree to become regularised employees. Bonding in their resentment towards men of Fujiwara’s age who romanticise their youth while exercising paternal authority and entitlement, the two hatch their revenge on an unforgiving society through the strange plan to acclimatise their pet jellyfish to life in modern Tokyo.

The jellyfish, closely associated with the ethereal Yuji, becomes a kind of symbol of the “bright future” the two young men fear will elude them. They, like the jellyfish, have tried to acclimatise themselves to living in the otherwise hostile environment of contemporary Tokyo but also accept that the ability to survive may not be enough and it may eventually be necessary to remove oneself from an unforgiving society until such time as it is possible to return.

This or something like it seems to be Mamoru’s key philosophy as the owner of the jellyfish and the chief architect of the “bright future” both men dream of – literally in the case of Yuji who is the idea’s unwilling prophet. Mamoru has, for reasons unknown, decided to take the strangely melancholic Yuji under his wing, eventually entrusting sole custody of the jellyfish to him in an attempt to force him to look after “himself”. In service of this ideal and perhaps of Yuji’s unwilling visions, Mamoru takes more immediate revenge against the literal Fujiwara – murdering his boss and his wife (Marumi Shiraishi) in their well appointed middle-class home (only their small daughter is spared). Yuji interprets this gesture as protective seeing as he himself had found the bodies after wandering into the Fujiwara home with violence on his mind, but misinterprets Mamoru’s intentions for him in disappointing his mentor by insisting that he is prepared to “wait” for him rather than take this cue to step up and take control of his own life’s direction. 

Yuji is indeed, like the majority of heroes in turn of the century Japanese cinema, entirely directionless. He appears to have no surviving family in the older generation, only an exasperated sister who does her best to help but doesn’t know how, attempting to straightjacket him into a salaryman world of conventional success with an office boy job at her understanding company. A strange young man, Yuji has has vivid dreams and a need for control and routine – it’s the closure of the local bowling lanes which sends him round to the Fujiwara’s in a calm yet violent rage while repeatedly losing in a video arcade to his sister’s boyfriend also sends his insecurity into overdrive. He once dreamt of a “bright future” but now sees only darkness. Stepping up onto the roof of a building in which he is learning to find a home, he is forced to admit that despite attempting to look far into the distance he can’t see much of anything at all from where he is right now.

Yet for all his resentment towards men like Fujiwara, it’s a father figure which eventually begins to push him in a more positive direction. Mamoru’s father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji) takes his son’s vulnerable best friend under his wing, giving him a home and a purpose as he begins to teach him how to repair things that might ordinarily be thrown away. Shinichiro’s previous assistant quit because he saw no future in this line of work, but Yuji seems to delight in the repurposing of the previously useless for arcane ends even if his chief contribution is a continuation of his jellyfish experiments. Shinichiro, superficially supportive, cannot understand the obsession with the jellyfish. Attempting to reassure a thwarted Yuji, he asks him what exactly the jellyfish could achieve in a world so resistant to real change yet he also berates him with the impassioned impotence of age in decrying his contemptuous dismissal of the reality which, after all, belongs to men like Shinichiro who will demand respect while offering very little in return.

The jellyfish find they can’t live in Tokyo, but youth adopts a different solution as it runs rampant with out purpose or direction but seemingly delighting in meaningless anarchy. A group of teens Yuji runs into wear identical Che Guevara T-shirts while sporting light-up microphone headsets as they wander round the city kicking cardboard boxes and laughing as they go, like overgrown children with no clear forward path before them. Age and youth seem primed to exist in differing realities, perpetually unable to understand each other while youth struggles to find direction in the absence of parental guidance. Ironic in the extreme, the “bright future” here seems to exist only as a vague hope but, perhaps, the only guiding light in an ever darkening world.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Ken Ninomiya, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Chiwawa posterFollowing indie drama The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, Ken Ninomiya takes a further step towards the mainstream with Chiwawa (チワワちゃん, Chiwawa-chan), inspired by Kyoko Okazaki’s 1996 manga. Updated for the Instagram generation, Ninomiya’s adaptation leans heavily on his trademark clubland style and sheds the sense of nihilism which defined mid-90s pop culture in favour of a world weary exploration of identity in the internet age in which connections are wilfully fleeting and personas easily interchangeable. The party is, however, about to come to an end for the latest generation of bright young things seeking hedonistic release but finding only emptiness in the superficial pleasures of meaningless excess.

The titular “Chiwawa” (Shiori Yoshida) is found dead, floating in pieces in Tokyo Bay. The notice of her demise is, in fact, the first time many of her friends discover her real name, Yoshiko Chiwaki, apparently 20 years old and according to the news a nursing student. She was for a time a big star on Instagram and a popular internet model whose face could be seen all over the city on mile high billboards, but before that she was just a girl looking for fun and friends in the Tokyo club scene which is how she met our heroine, Miki (Mugi Kadowaki). Like Miki herself, Chiwawa was added to the small group of clubland friends as the current squeeze of playboy student Yoshida (Ryo Narita), introducing herself with her enigmatic nickname supposedly a reference to her petite stature. Branding herself as an ultra cute airhead, she quickly worked her way into the disparate group of Bohemians but eventually outgrew them and moved on to more dubious pleasures including an ill-fated love affair with a famous photographer (Tadanobu Asano).

The only one of her friends seemingly preoccupied about what happened to Chiwawa, Miki begins an investigation but her research is less geared towards finding out who killed her – something the police don’t seem to be very invested in, but discovering who she “really” was. Mimicking the structure of Okazaki’s episodic manga, Miki begins interviewing her friends to build up a kaleidoscopic composite of the woman she thought she knew while perhaps discovering something about herself as she reconsiders her own life trajectory and the coming end of her youthful days in the clubland scene while pondering where it is she’s supposed to go next.

Like much of Okazaki’s work, the manga’s mid-90’s setting is soaked post-bubble malaise as her dejected youngsters escape from the sense of crushing disappointment in the wake of the abrupt end of the heady ‘80s heyday of Japan as leading global economy, but for Miki and her friends twenty years later perhaps things aren’t all that different as they fight the onset of adulthood and the relative lack of freedom and possibility they will encounter when their student lives end and the workaday world finally arrives. Aspiring filmmaker Nagai (Nijiro Murakami) captures everything with his video camera while working as a photographer’s assistant by day, allowing Miki and her friends to use the studio at night for their Instagram side gigs which is how Chiwawa winds up in the fashion biz.

Some starving artists, others merely nervous hedonists, the gang have no money but when Chiwawa runs off with the gigantic bribe a group of slimy businessmen were boasting about carrying, the gang manage to blow it in just three days of upscale partying. Miki alone, and perhaps more in hindsight, feels the emptiness of all this senseless excess but it’s Chiwawa herself who seems to fear the party’s end most of all. When you start to think it’ll go on like this forever, that’s when you know it’s about to end she laments, apparently missing her old gang like crazy but knowing you can’t put something back together after it falls apart.

Miki fails to solve the mystery of Chiwawa, perhaps sorry that she didn’t try harder to know her while she was alive but also knowing that’s partly because “Chiwawa” might not have wanted to be known for all that she was chasing love and acceptance in all the wrong places. In the end, she retreats into a past that no one quite remembers, another melancholy ghost of Tokyo’s neon-tinged nightlife. Youth moves on, clubs close down, the world keeps turning. That may be the saddest thing of all, Chiwawa remains unknown, unloved, and finally unremembered. A melancholy exploration of fractured identities, the ethereality of youth, and the impossibility of true connection, Chiwawa is another zeitgeisty piece from Ninomiya which takes the manga’s post-bubble anxiety and reboots for an age of alienation in which the end of the party is always lingering painfully on the horizon.


Chiwawa was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)

Hana (花よりもなほ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2006)

Hana poster 1The heart of the samurai movie lies in the conflict between human feeling and duty to one’s code, unexpectedly the code usually wins but its victory is often tragic. Following a series of bleak modern dramas, Hirokazu Koreeda took his first (and so far only) foray into the jidaigeki with Hana (花よりもなほ, Hana yori mo Naho), stopping to ask if the entirety of the samurai ethos was founded more on pride and a sense of entitlement than a supposedly high ideal of honour of justice, and if perhaps the negative legacy of the samurai era is one that continues to be passed on through toxic masculinity and the patriarchal primacy of problematic fathers.

Set in 1702, the action revolves around noble hearted samurai Soza (Junichi Okada) who has been living in a rundown tenement ally for the last three years looking for the man who killed his father in a pointless quarrel over a game of Go in order to avenge his death. Despite being a fine samurai and heir to a dojo, Soza’s big secret is that he’s not much of a swordsman and is also tenderhearted which leaves him doubly conflicted in his mission. Unwilling to admit he has simply come to like living among these “ordinary” people, and most particularly alongside the widow Osae (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son Shinbo, Soza has perhaps begun to slack off and no is longer looking very hard for his quarry, willingly allowing himself to be conned into buying meals for the cheeky Sado (Arata Furuta) who already has tabs running all over town.

Unlike the majority of samurai tales, Koreeda deliberately shifts the focus to the poor – routinely oppressed by an unscrupulous landlord who has even taken to selling their excrement for extra money just to make sure they are as thoroughly exploited as possible. These people exist so far out of the samurai world that it might as well not exist for them and its rules are nothing more than a ridiculous affectation when your primary concerns are how to keep yourself fed for the day and make sure your house doesn’t suddenly fall down while you’re out. These facts are well and truly brought home to Soza when, knowing he has little chance of winning anyway, he is challenged to a fight by jaded street punk Sode (Ryo Kase) who is keen to prove to little Shinbo that dojo skills mean nothing in the real world. Soza gets a pounding, but somehow wins people’s hearts anyway if only for being so easily humiliated and bearing it with good grace.

Lessons to little Shinbo, who has figured out his father is probably dead but worries that maybe his mother still doesn’t know, becomes a persistent motif as Koreeda embraces his favourite theme – good fathers and bad. Soza’s samurai code pushes him towards martial rigour and the necessity of obeying his father’s wishes which in this case would be hating the man who killed him and avenging his death. Hate is, however, something the fair-minded Soza finds difficult even if he seems to have a fair amount of inner conflict towards his father whom even his cheerful uncle describes as a joyless prude. Osae, sensing Soza’s inner pain, points him in the right direction in remarking that if all his father left behind for him was hate then that legacy would be too sad. Eventually, Soza remembers that there were other things, better things, that his father taught him and that he could pass on to Shinbo which aren’t about pointless cycles of revenge killing and century old grudges. He can honour the spirit of his duty without having to obey it to the letter.

Meanwhile, Koreeda deliberately contrasts Soza’s gradual confidence in his humanitarianism with the stubborn pride of the 47 ronin who are also hiding out in the tenement ally while they bide their time waiting to strike. Soza manages to effect his “revenge” with some theatrical subterfuge, whereas the 47 (well, in the end 46) ronin take theirs for real but not altogether honourably and end up becoming legend overnight, earning the tenement a brief reprieve after the landlord threatens to close it down through becoming a tourist spot. The title, apparently inspired by the death poem of Lord Asano whose seppuku triggered the series of incidents later retold as the legend of the Chushingura, alludes to the nihilistic pointlessness of the samurai ideal of a death as elegant as falling cherry blossoms, later imbuing it with earthier, warmer wisdom as an unexpected fount of profundity affirms that the reason cherry blossoms fall so beautifully is that they know they will soon bloom again.


Hana was screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective playing at the BFI Southbank in April and May 2019.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Yukiko Mishima, 2017)

Dear Etranger posterThe family drama has long been considered the representative genre of Japanese cinema, but with the days of Ozu long gone the family itself has become a subject for reappraisal. Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (幼な子われらに生まれ, Osanago Warera ni Umare) is the latest to take a scalpel to the nation’s basic social unit and ask what the word “family” means in an ever changing social landscape. In an Ozu picture, one family must be broken for another to be formed – this is the way of things and in the end must be accepted if with sadness, but does it really need to be this way or is there room for more as connections become less easy to define?

Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) separated from his first wife some time ago and still spends time with his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), though only a few times a year. Four years ago he married another woman, Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who had also been married before and has two children – Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eri (Miu Arai). Nanae has recently discovered she is pregnant and is thrilled to bits to add to their family, but Makoto is conflicted. He liked the family as it was and worries that the new baby will place a wedge between himself and his step-daughters, that they may suddenly feel themselves pushed out and not really part of the new family that is being forged by a child who has a blood relation to both their parents rather than just one.

In truth, family dynamics aren’t all Makoto currently has to worry about. A 40-year-old man, he’s also hitting the scrap heap at work – rather than laying people off, they’re transferring them to unpleasant jobs in the hope they’ll resign. A lifelong salaryman, Makoto has been sent to the packing warehouse where his every move is logged on computer and he’s rated for speed. This is partly his own “fault”. Rather than play the salaryman game, Makoto wanted to be a family man. He doesn’t work weekends or overtime, he takes public holidays off, and never stays out late drinking with colleagues – all things which mark your card as an antisocial shirker in workaholic Japan.

Makoto’s superior, warning him about the imminent transfers, criticises his attitude. He tells him that he doesn’t think spending time with his children is his “job” as a father. He sees his responsibility as one of providing a role model and he thinks the best way to do that is to be seen working hard as a “respectable” member of society. Makoto couldn’t disagree more. He works to rule, but wants to be the sort of father that’s there for his kids, not just an authoritarian figure who comes home late smelling of booze and throws his weight around. He knows that as the children grow up they’ll grow away from him and won’t want to hang out with dad anymore, so he wants to spend time with them now while he still can.

Makoto’s intense desire to be a family man is perhaps unusual in Japan where men channel their ambition into work and women are (still) expected to channel theirs into the home. It is therefore doubly painful for Makoto when his elder step-daughter, Kaoru, heading into a difficult age, suddenly rejects him on hearing about the new baby. Despite the fact that Kaoru’s biological father (Kankuro Kudo) was violent towards both her and her mother, Kaoru begins to insist on seeing him, complaining that it’s unfair to be forced to live with “a stranger”. On one level, Kaoru is at the age at which most young women begin to find their father annoying and embarrassing, but her resentment is also informed by a fear of abandonment and cultural doubt about her place in a still atypical family, unconvinced that it’s possible for a man to become a father to a child that’s not his own by blood.

Blood ties still seem to trump all in most people’s minds, but bureaucracy plays its part too. Makoto still insists on making time to see Saori – something which is sadly unusual in Japan where divorce usually results not only in the children losing contact with the absent parent but also the entirety of an extended family. Kaoru doesn’t quite like it that Makoto does this, she feels almost betrayed as if he’s choosing his biological child over her and that continuing to associate with Saori means he hasn’t fully committed to her family. There seems to be an idea that the family unit is a distinct bubble and one can’t be inside more than one at a time, just as one can’t be listed on more than one “family register”. When an emergency occurs and Saori needs to get a lift from Nanae who has Eri in the back of the car, she isn’t sure if it’s OK for her to get in even with her father with her. She suddenly feels awkward, as if her presence in his car with his new family is inappropriate. None of these people know each other – the existence of a parallel family is so embarrassing as to be “unseen”, buried like a scandalous secret and kept entirely separate to avoid any cross-contamination. When Eri asks who Saori is, awkward silence prevails until she is forced to introduce herself as a “friend” of her father’s – something he doesn’t bother to correct until the drive home when another encounter has pushed him into reconsidering what it means to be a “father”. 

Makoto’s strong desire for acceptance and for forging a “family” that is “his” may perhaps seem selfish and possessive, yet he also tries to react with patience and empathy towards others in his position. He tries to be patient with Kaoru, advising her that he doesn’t think meeting her “real” dad is a good idea but if it’s what she wants he’ll try to make it happen. Likewise, he is grateful to Saori’s stepfather for raising his daughter when he wasn’t able to. Finally the walls begin to dissolve and it stops being about who belongs on which bit of paper and starts being about connections forged through love and understanding. The new baby, rather than forcing everyone apart, begins to bring them together, each joined by a feeling of joy and responsibility towards the new life to which they are all connected. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Yoji Yamada, 2015)

nagasaki-memories-of-my-sonAfter such a long and successful career, Yoji Yamada has perhaps earned the right to a little retrospection. Offering a smattering of cinematic throwbacks in homages to both Yasujiro Ozu and Kon Ichikawa, Yamada then turned his attention to the years of militarism and warfare in the tales of a struggling mother, Kabei, and a young a woman finding herself a haven from the ongoing political storm inside The Little House. Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (母と暮せば, Haha to Kuraseba) unites both of these impulses in its examination of maternal grief set amidst the mass tragedy of the atomic bomb and in the obvious reference hidden inside Japanese title (another Yamada trend) to the 2004 Kazuo Kuroki film The Face of Jizo (父と暮せば, Chichi to Kuroseba), itself based on a play by Hisashi Inoe. Whereas the young woman of Hiroshima found herself literally haunted by the image of her father to the extent that she was unable to continue living in the present, the mother at the centre of Nagasaki is approaching the end of her life but only now, three years after the bombing, is she ready to allow the idea of her son’s death to cement itself within her mind.

Nobuko’s (Sayuri Yoshinaga) son Koji (Kazunari Ninomiya) left as normal on that fateful morning, in a hurry as always, leaping onto the outside of a crowded bus that would take him to the university for a lecture on anatomy. That was three years ago and now it’s August again but in the absence of a body Nobuko has never been able to accept the death of her son, despite the picture on the altar and the two previous trips she’s made to the family grave on this date along with Koji’s girlfriend, Machiko (Haru Kuroki). Finally, Nobuko is beginning to feel it’s time to accept the inevitable, that her son is not lost somewhere and unable to find his way home but in some other world. This grudging acceptance of Koji’s death is the thing which returns him to her as the prodigal son suddenly appears one evening in spirit form to reminisce with his mother about the carefree pre-war days.

Kazunari Ninomiya’s Koji is, appropriately enough, a larger than life presence. A cheerful chatterbox, Koji blusters in to his old family home with the same kind of amusing energy he’d always lent it, laughing raucously to his mother’s polite but strange under the circumstances greeting of “have you been well?”. Reminiscences generally lean towards happier times but each time Koji becomes upset he suddenly disappears again, leaving his mother alone with all her sorrows. Nobuko lost both her sons to the war and her husband to TB and so she is quite alone now save for the kindhearted attentions of Machiko who continues to stop by and help her with house work or just keep her company.

The two women share an intense bond in their shared grief. Almost like mother and daughter Nobuko and Machiko help each other to bear the weight of their loneliness in the wake of such overwhelming tragedy. However, Nobuko is beginning to feel guilty in monopolising the life of this young woman who might have been her daughter-in-law or the mother of her grandchildren by now if things were different. Can she really ask her to sacrifice the rest of her life to a memory? Machiko swears that she has no desire to ever marry, preferring to remain loyal to her true love. “Shanghai Uncle” a black marketeer who brings Nobuko all the hard to find items not available through the normal channels, offers to set up an arranged marriage for the young woman but Nobuko is quick to turn it down on her behalf. In this new age of democracy, she says, young women ought to have the right to choose their own path whatever that may be. Nobuko respects Machiko’s choice, but after talking things over with Koji, urges her to consider letting the past go and honouring Koji’s memory by living fully while there is still time.

Interestingly enough, Machiko’s potential suitor, Kuroda – an injured war veteran and fellow teacher at the school where she teaches, is played by Tadanobu Asano who also played the shy researcher who began to reawaken the heart of the daughter at the centre of The Face of Jizo, Mitsue. Mitsue’s problem was more obviously one of survivor’s guilt, literally haunted by the friendly spirit of her genial father who continually urges her to embrace this last opportunity for happiness, to go on living even whilst others can’t. Nobuko’s journey is almost the reverse as she, essentially, attempts to cleave herself away from her life by ensuring Machiko is taken care of and knows that she has nothing to feel guilty about in seeking happiness even if it can’t be with Koji.

Despite the innovative opening sequence featuring the cockpit and targeting system of the plane which eventually dropped the bomb and the chilling effects sequence as it takes hold, Yamada then reverts to a kind of classical stateliness which is never as effective as Kuroki’s eerie magical realism. Adding in the Christian imagery associated with Nagasaki, the film takes a turn for the mawkish during the final sequence which descends into a series of heavenly cliches from fluffy white clouds to angelic choirs. Warm and melancholy, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son is a poignant exploration of life in the aftermath of preventable tragedy but one which also makes the case for moving on, honouring the legacy of the past with a life lived richly and to the full.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Sogo Ishii, 2000)

gojoe-2Not your mama’s jidaigeki – the punk messiah who brought us such landmarks of energetic, surreal filmmaking as Crazy Family and Burst City casts himself back to the Middle Ages for an experimental take on the samurai genre. In Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Gojo reisenki), Sogo Ishii remains a radical even within this often most conservative of genres through reinterpreting one of the best loved Japanese historical legends – the battle at Kyoto’s Gojoe Bridge . Far from the firm friends of the legends, this Benkei and this Shanao (Yoshitsune in waiting) are mortal enemies, bound to each other by cosmic fate but locked in combat.

Following a war between the Heike and Genji clans, the Heike have assumed power sending the Genji into retreat and exile. All should be well, but a mysterious force is taking the lives of Heike guardsmen. Around this time, former bloody warrior turned Buddhist monk Benkei (Daisuke Ryu) has received a prophecy that his path to enlightenment lies in vanquishing the “demon” which is killing soldiers in needlessly bloodthirsty ways. The Heike are not so much afraid of a supernatural threat as they are of a predictable one – the first son of the Genji whom they intended to murder as a child but later set free. Shanao (Tadanobu Asano ), only just come of age, wants his right and just revenge to restore his clan to its rightful place, but this is a dark time and there are more powerful forces at play than traumatised monks and disinherited princes.

The world of the jidaigeki, though often violent, has its own degree of careful order – rules which must be followed, pledges which must be honoured, and causes which must be seen through at any cost. The world of Gojoe is a necessarily chaotic one in which a fragile peace has been forged through violence and trickery but the sins of the past weigh heavy on those trying to forge ahead in the new era.

The Benkei of the legends is fiercely loyal to his lord, but this Benkei is very much a lone wolf, standing apart in his desire to expiate his sins. Though his fellow monk tries to convince him that the prophecy he’s been given is nothing but a delusion, Benkei is determined to find his peace through killing a literal demon rather than tackle the ones inside his mind. Nevertheless, the past is ever present through flashbacks, even at one point revisiting one of the darker elements of the Benkei story – the killing of a child who might be his own.

The “demon” which Benkei seeks turns out to be three orphaned children who have been trained by the remnants of their clan to seek nothing other than revenge. Shanao is more killing machine than man, thinking of nothing other than assuming his rightful role as the head of the Genji and restoring his family honour. When the two meet, each regards the other as “demonic” but Shanao has a point when he asks Benkei if it’s not his own heart which is unquiet. Where Benkei is contained rage, Shanao is calmness and refinement personified.

Benkei is joined for some of his journey by the comparatively more everyman presence of Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), formerly a master sword maker who’s taken to robbing corpses after growing disillusioned with his craft which often saw his beautiful handiwork in the hands of hypocritical warrior monks. “What’s so great about being alive anyway?” he asks at one point, not long after reminding Benkei that “this hell” is all of his making. Hell this is, Ishii’s world is bathed in fire and blood as petty clan conflict burns the villages of ordinary peasants who are so far removed from this sword bearing society as to be otherwise unaware of it. The peasants have their own problems to deal with as a shaman calls for the brutal beating to death of a pregnant woman supposedly infected by a “demon” and about to give birth to a “demon child”, but even if Benkei is moved to counter this instance of injustice, he is not willing to follow through when it comes to the larger implications of his decision.

The supernatural elements are more a means of cosmological explanation than they are of real threat yet Ishii conjures a dark and creepy world of ominous shadows and ever present danger. Fantasy tinged action allows for giant blood sprays as heads come off with abandon, but the sword fights themselves are both beautifully choreographed and filled with intensity. The final battle between Shanao and Benkei heads off in an unexpectedly experimental direction as swords spark against a starless sky until a cosmic event allows their fierce conflict to erupt into a raging fire, destroying the bridge and everything it stands for. There is no resolution here, only a passage of one state to the next as Benkei and Shanao live on in altered forms. Conducted to the pulsing, warlike drumbeats of a typically exhilarating Ishii score (composed by Ishii’s own band, Mach 1.67), Gojoe is jidaigeki reimagined for the modern era bringing all of the genre’s anxiety and spiritual conflict with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Harmonium (淵に立つ, Koji Fukada, 2016)

harmoniumKoji Fukada first ventured into the family drama arena with the darkly comic satire Hospitalité in 2010 in which frequent collaborator Kanji Furutachi played the decidedly odd “family friend” who quickly took over the household and exposed all of its weaknesses before departing as mysteriously as he arrived. This time Furutachi plays the man of the house, though like his counterpart in Hospitalité, has not been telling the whole truth. Unlike much of Fukada’s previous work, Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) abandons the comedy overtones for a truly bleak and tragic atmosphere which seems to speak of the death of the family unit itself.

On a morning just like any other, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and their small daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), take breakfast together around the kitchen table. Akie leads grace while Toshio reads his paper before Hotaru moves on to a story about the baby spiders in the garden and how they collectively eat their mother. After his wife and daughter have left for the day, Toshio lifts the shutter on his workshop only to see a familiar, if long forgotten, face standing behind it.

The two men talk and it’s clear they’re old friends but have not seen each other in a long time. Fresh out of prison, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is dressed in an odd looking suit without a jacket, the top button of his pristine white shirt neatly buttoned up. Toshio offers Yasaka a job in his workshop and a room in his house – all without a word to Akie, but somehow there’s something other than an altruistic desire to help an old friend who’s fallen on hard times at play.

Yasaka moves in and is permanently on his best behaviour but it isn’t until it’s discovered that he has a talent for the harmonium and begins to help Hotaru improve her playing that Akie starts to warm to him. It also helps that he’s interested in her spiritual life at the local protestant church, unlike her husband, and is generally around and available to her. Learning how Yasaka ended up in prison and how he now feels about his crime, Akie comes to feel this melancholy man must be especially worthy to God, and sure enough a mutual attraction begins to arise between the pair.

There’s a kind of debt implied in the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio which has Toshio running scared, trying to keep his old friend sweet lest he call it in. Yasaka’s intentions remain unclear, has he come for revenge or for comfort, to restart his life or to rehash the past? There’s something inescapably odd about his presence with his identical black suit trousered, white shirted figure which simultaneously makes him look like someone who just came out of prison and has been given one outfit to help them get a job, and like a dodgy TV evangelist or cult leader – ever so slightly too buttoned down and contained. At one point he tells Toshio he’s starting to wonder why Toshio has all of this ordinary success and he doesn’t, he could take it if he wanted to. Toshio, it has to be said, is not trying very hard to protect his place at the head of the table.

Like Yoshimitsu Morita in that other landmark of the family drama turned inside out by an unscheduled visitor, The Family Game, Fukada also makes the dinner table the centre of the conversation. We can see right away that this is not a “harmonious” household through the unbalanced seating arrangements – Toshio on one side, barely speaking and reading his paper, while Akie and Hotaru sit together opposite him reciting grace before they eat. There’s an ugly, empty space at the expected fourth position which is soon to be filled by Yasaka, but his presence does little to alleviate the anxiety of three people sitting at a table meant for four. Notably, after an unexpected tragedy occurs in the second part of the film the table itself has been rotated ninety degrees and only half of it is ever used as the lower part is cut off with a small TV showing live footage from another room. The family no longer take meals together, the kitchen is no longer a warm and organised place but a cold and chaotic one.

The sins of the father are visited upon the child. Everyone thinks they’re guilty of something, and that someone else is paying for their wrongdoing (and by implication forcing them to suffer by proxy). The presence of the harmonium – a staple in small churches and parlours of the 19th century, has a strangely religious resonance that perfectly tallies with Akie’s adherence to her Protestant faith which infuses the house even in the absence of crosses or other forms of iconography. Yasaka carries with him a sense of malevolence, like a visiting demon tempting and provoking as he goes, though it ultimately remains unclear if he is even to blame for the tragedy which befalls the family or is simply another victim of it.

Retaining his elegantly composed, static camera, Fukada makes use of unusual and high impact cuts as well as a daring, unannounced jump forward in time. Red becomes a recurrent theme as it alarmingly cuts through the otherwise subdued colour scheme whether as a T-shirt hidden behind a calm white boiler suit, or the reflections of a car window as a particularly dark thought passes through a passenger’s mind. Filled with mismatched pairs and asymmetrical setups, the family find themselves locked into a wheel of repetitions until the final scene which sees them recreate a “happy” family photo in a kind of grim tableau as neglectful father Toshio desperately fights to revive his family. Darker in tone and filled with an almost supernatural malevolence, Harmonium is a tense and unpredictable drama probing at the status of the traditional family in an increasingly uncertain world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)